Primary rehearsal

The governing United Russia party held its “primaries” (irritatingly “translated” to Russian as праймериз) in the last week of May. The votes were totaled and a party congress will, on June 19, approve a list of candidates for the September Duma elections (and other votes to be held on the same day). It is worth taking a closer look at the primaries, because behind the façade of utter dullness, they offer a glimpse into tactics and techniques that could and probably will be used in the Duma election as well.

Why are they holding primaries?

Primaries usually serve the purpose of finding a place for political competition in an electoral system that is otherwise centralizing. In the United States, an entrenched two-party system where parties are essentially institutions, it makes possible for candidates running on very different policy platforms to have a shot at running for office. In countries like Hungary with an electoral system designed to help a dominant (governing) party, which has both a left- and right-wing opposition, primaries allow opposition parties to decide the terms of cooperation and present a united front against the government, the only way to unseat it.

Russia fits the second category: its electoral system, frequently modified, is designed to help the governing party, United Russia. Yet, the only party that holds primaries in this system is the governing party. Why is this? First, it is because through administrative and legal pressure the authorities can keep actual opposition away from the ballot boxes, thus there is no sense, or desire, for the parties of the systemic opposition to cooperate. Second, the vote is a useful tool for the authorities and United Russia to resolve elite conflicts – e.g. over financial resources allocated for elections or political resources, such as a safe Duma seat – and thus eliminate the chances of their coming out in the actual electoral campaign. Third, it offers an excellent opportunity for the authorities to try out tactics and tools before the actual Duma election. This is what happened at the end of May.

Is this just a charade?

Most of the primary races, of course, did not bring real competition. Looking at the results on the website of the primaries, it is obvious that in most regions (though not everywhere, e.g. not in Tatarstan) there was a large gap between the winner(s) and the rest of the pack. Below this cutoff, votes cast for losers were usually neatly, often suspiciously neatly distributed among them, almost as if an invisible hand allocated them at random. Where there was any competition, it was typically between elite groups, rather than ideologically different candidates, however much Dmitry Medvedev, the party’s president tried to depict the party as a collection of different platforms. In St. Petersburg, for instance, a sitting Duma deputy, Sergey Vostretsov lost his primary after a public conflict with Andrey Turchak, one of the party’s political heavyweights. In Moscow ,Nikolay Gonchar, a sitting Duma deputy lost the vote after running afoul of the rest of the party in the Duma when he voted against a law prohibiting people associated with “extremist groups” from running in elections. In one of the single-mandate districts of the Perm Territory a former mayor of Perm, Igor Shubin beat one of his successors, Igor Sapko in a fairly competitive vote.

In some regions local elites reportedly entered and supported candidates without consulting with federal party leaders, which led to conflicts. In the Chelyabinsk Region Ilya Mitelman, a deputy in the municipal assembly was disqualified after challenging Vladimir Pavlov, a vice-speaker of the regional parliament and criticizing the mayor of Chelyabinsk. In the Maritime Territory, meanwhile, poor administrative control over the vote reportedly initially led to several unapproved candidates running, and then utter confusion about the result several days after voting was closed. This may be a worrying sign for political technologists in Moscow, as it betrays fissures in the loyalty of local elites (a phenomenon that I have written about earlier), and even though the party can still eliminate and replace candidate as it pleases, or even invent a result, this takes work and consumes political capital. But most of these differences will almost certainly be ironed out before the June 19 congress. Indeed, just as Medvedev who extolled the virtue of non-public conflict resolution in his interview with Kommersant, these differences will likely to be solved behind the scenes, because this is the preferred way.

But perhaps more importantly, the primaries help resolving conflicts between candidates in different regions who do not run against each other: they allow local party elites to showcase how well they can mobilize the electorate in their region (or at least how well they are able to manipulate numbers), which in turn influences resource allocation before the campaign period. Primaries also give United Russia publicity as they allow the party to showcase candidates who have recently received exposure in the media for whatever reason, regardless of whether they win (like foreign-agent-turned-media-personality Maria Butina) or lose (like former Tatu singer Yulia Volkova). Likely for the same reason the primaries included several doctors at prominent places, e.g. Mariana Lysenko, the head doctor of a major hospital in Moscow, or Svetlana Bykova, a cardiologist in Orenburg (a region, which saw, at least officially, a remarkably high turnout). In general, party leaders were eager to emphasize the renewal aspect of the primaries and how significantly United Russia, in government for more than two decades, is changing. Medvedev, for instance, underlined that a hundred deputies from the party’s present Duma group did not run. Others drew attention to new faces in Moscow. But these were little more than cosmetic changes and scheduled retirements. Every significant party heavyweight had a guaranteed place on the ticket: Duma Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin in Saratov, former cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova – who famously introduced the constitutional amendment zeroing Putin’s presidential terms – in Yaroslavl; Pavel Krasheninnikov, the deputy who oversaw last year’s constitutional reform in Sverdlovsk; the firebrand deputy head of the Duma, Petr Tolstoy in Moscow, etc. Larisa Shoigu, the sister of defence minister Sergey Shoigu, also easily won a place on the ticket in Tuva. In short, the party was very eager to communicate a semblance of change, without committing to any significant changes.

The news site Znak had a report on how competition was imitated in the primaries in the Chelyabinsk region. In several districts, actual United Russia candidates ran against their close associates; local businessmen compelled people connected to their business empire to run against them to create a semblance of interest. At the same time, the party kept all real candidates away from one specific district, because it was going to be “offered” to Fair Russia to take in the Duma election (similarly to how systemic opposition parties picked up SMDs in 2016). A remarkably similar story emerged from the Irkutsk Region: Roman Efremov, a businessman with barely any name recognition locally, will likely be the United Russia candidate competing against Mikhail Shchapov, a communist politician and former FSB officer who is apparently thus rewarded for not mounting a serious challenge against Igor Kobzev, the region’s United Russia governor in a gubernatorial election last year.

Is this even real?

Spoiler candidates, imitated competition and background deals are all techniques observed in legislative elections. But the similarities go well beyond these. Take all the cases of suspicious results. In a primary precinct in Moscow, for example, more than a dozen candidates ended up with the exact same number of votes, reminiscent of remarkably uniform numbers reported by polling stations across the country in last year’s constitutional plebiscite. When the apparent falsification was publicized, the website simply stopped reporting precinct-level data. In the Maritime Territory, numbers kept changing back and forth days after the vote, recalling the region’s gubernatorial election in 2018 when a communist candidate seemed to be on his way to defeat the United Russia incumbent up until the last moments of the vote count.

Even the number of voters is disputed. Party leaders said that more than 11 million people participated in the vote. This would be more than 10 percent of all voters, remarkable for an election with such low stakes, and almost half of United Russia’s voters in the 2016 legislative election. But this is, of course, also highly suspect. For one, the number of voters seems to have abruptly doubled over the end of the week when the primaries were held. In St. Petersburg people reported getting text messages thanking them for their participation, even though they did not vote. According to the independent electoral observing group Golos, there is simply no way of verifying how many people actually voted.

To understand how this is possible, consider that voters could cast their vote both online and in person, but in 43 regions the primaries were fully online, including in Moscow. Online voting, with which the Russian authorities started experimenting on a large scale in 2020, and which is likely to be used in the September legislative election as well, happens through the Gosuslugi portal, which is where Russians can interact with institutions providing administrative services. In Moscow they could also use the capital’s own site, Dmitry Nesterov, a political analyst recalled that already in February public sector employees in Moscow were encouraged to complete their accounts on, since an account needed to be complete with personal information allowing the authorities to verify the identity of the account holder in order for them to be eligible to vote. Public sector employees in other regions also reported pressure, including by their supervisors, to register for the vote (Novaya Gazeta had an in-depth report from Mytishchi, near Moscow). And while administrative pressure, again, has been part of the authorities’ electoral toolbox for years, this time it appeared to be on a different scale. “Previously we were just nudged [to vote] but now there is this feeling that if you don’t go, you’ll be killed,” a state employee told Novaya Gazeta, slightly exaggerating, one would hope.

What does all this portend?

And it appears that either even this was insufficient to produce the numbers that the party wanted to see, or the authorities tested just how far it is possible to push numbers with the new tools that electoral legislation now makes possible. Between the suspiciously neatly distributed votes among candidates and the text messages appearing out of the blue, there is reason to suspect that a significant part of the numbers was simply made up. And as long as there is very little independent scrutiny over online voting (and the authorities have significantly restricted scrutiny over offline voting last year), it may be enough to simply register people to vote online to commit large-scale fraud.

As Gosuslugi profiles completed before the primaries will remain in the system before the September election, and few would expect the authorities not to put additional pressure on public servants and employees of state-owned companies to register to vote, the United Russia primaries may just have been a rehearsal of how to engineer an electoral victory when the ruling party’s support is dangerously dwindling, but the authorities have just acquired new, extraordinary powers, ostensibly in the name of making the election safer.

The catch, of course, is that all this is not foolproof. Glitches can emerge, as they did in the primaries; and the authorities continue to have no answer to a situation where a large number of people turn up and vote for non-United Russia candidates, only to see their votes being “zeroed” in the official count. And unlike United Russia’s primaries, a legislative election actually matters. United Russia primaries can be a way to handle intra-elite disputes, or an exercise in election engineering; but however poorly they are run, they are not going to create the Big Injustice capable of prompting people to take to the streets. A legislative election could.

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